Norman Ackroyd: Artist At Work

Norman Ackroyd, Cape Wrath. Etching, 2011 Norman Ackroyd, Cape Wrath. Etching, 2011.

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Norman Ackroyd, one of Britain's foremost landscape artists, agreed to let the cameras into his studio for a day to capture him at work.

The artist still hasn't seen BBC Four's joyful film of his creative life as encapsulated by the activity of a single wintry production day, when the snow outside fell like powdery resin onto a copper etching plate.

"I just... let it go," he says. "You have to trust. It's the same with the work."

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Norman Ackroyd photograph

I really needed to understand the land I was born in, to be back standing on my own muck”

End Quote Norman Ackroyd

That work has, over the past thirty years, gained him an international reputation, a Senior Fellowship of the Royal College of Art and a CBE, and his pieces hang in The Tate and New York's MoMA; beguiling, shadowy monochromatic studies of some of the harshest landscapes of the British Isles, created by an etching process that requires artistry, craftsmanship and the good fortune that is born of considerable skill and effort.

Ackroyd, a warm, teacherly Yorkshireman, explains etching as ''engraving metal with acid'. "It's a very democratic medium. When there was no photo-reproduction, no ProntaPrint, paintings like The Monarch of the Glen would be sent to the etchers and plates made so that ordinary folk could see it."

Indeed, his own prints sell for under a thousand pounds, and often considerably less for smaller works. "I'm in the business of communicating," he explains. "One person can look at a Picasso etching and it leaves them absolutely cold. Someone else could think 'I've got to have that'. That's the effect I'm trying to achieve."

He paints directly onto a wax-covered copper sheet, opening up spaces into which a later bath of acid will 'bite'. It's into these gaps that the printers' ink will eventually settle, before being pressed against a page.

The soft, almost watercolour-like quality that Ackroyd achieves in the finished article comes from an 'aquatint', a cloud of fine resin that settles onto the plate and adheres to create a 'wash' that will layer the image with atmospheric tone.

Norman Ackroyd, Stac an Armin Evening. Etching, 2010 Norman Ackroyd, Stac an Armin Evening. Etching, 2010.

Once he is happy with the image that emerges through the massive wheels and rollers of his Victorian printing press, he can begin to produce. Etching is a simple process, he laughs, aware that many people are baffled by the description. It is also unpredictable, but rewarding of both diligence and daring.

"My father was a butcher, he worked with his hands," says Ackroyd, and indeed perhaps there is something in his prints of the child's perspective of looking up at a huge, looming carcasses in a cold room. "You do get that feeling with the architecture of the land, those massive slips and splits, say Muckle Roe on Shetland, for example - there are chasms that look like they were split with a butcher's cleaver."

Norman Ackroyd, Sula Sgeir. Etching, 2011 Norman Ackroyd, Sula Sgeir. Etching, 2011.

Mr Ackroyd Snr, a practical man, was not confident that art could be a sustaining career for his son. Norman had been born into a tough, industrial South Leeds in 1938 so London's Royal College of Art in swinging '61 was a culture shock, but it was only a matter of time before the aspiring artist realised that he was every bit as good 'and possibly better' than his flashier peers.

This was a time of Pop Art, in nearby studios David Hockney was painting boxes of Typhoo Tea, and while Ackroyd took advantage of the resources to experiment his taste was more earthy. When his contemporaries moved to New York in the early '70s, he joined them, but could not settle.

"It was homesickness, but not a banal form. It was the feeling that I really needed to understand the land I was born in, to be back standing on my own muck. There's that fantastic Yeats line 'He that sings a lasting song, thinks in a marrow-bone'. I needed to have a more than superficial understanding."

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And then you've got 3000 miles of ocean until you come to the Americas. So it really is the edge of everything.”

End Quote Norman Ackroyd

Some months after his return, he travelled to Orkney, the extreme northern point of the British Isles, and so began a project that has seen him chart over 500 viewpoints in our most outlying areas.

"This little group of islands sitting off the edge of Europe, which sits on the end of Asia" he says in the film, looking at a sea chart dotted with little blue pins marking the places he's documented. "And then you've got 3000 miles of ocean until you come to the Americas. So it really is the edge of everything."

It's a theme he returns to in conversation. "I was absolutely fascinated by maps as a child, to the point where I would almost imagine lying down and living in them."

When making his initial sketches, he makes sure to approach his subject by sea, chartering a local boatman and observing the monumental terrain from an avowedly human perspective.

Norman Ackroyd, Shepherd Rock. Etching, 2011 Norman Ackroyd, Sheperd Rock. Etching, 2011.

"Aerial shots are dramatic, but they're not what I want," he says. "Take, for example, the St Kildans, before they were evacuated. The abstract shapes of that landscape was the background to their lives, they understood it completely, it formed the essence of the environment they lived in and carved their homes from, and it's that feeling of place that I'm trying to communicate."

There are no figures in his work, but there is wildlife in great, whirling abundance. "Being on the boats, you can't hear anything but the screaming of the seabirds, there are more of them than there is land, and you can't ignore that. They're moving, but they're part of the whole."

One of the most tantalising aspects of the programme is that having spent an entire day finding out what an artist such as Ackroyd really does, (including an early lunch at a Spanish restaurant across the road from his Bermondsey home and workshop, no wine on a production day - one does not drink and etch, not if you want to keep all your fingers') we eventually leave him only part-way through the creation of his piece.

He will hone and print and hone and print several times before being satisfied with the final image. Is it finished now? "Yes, but I've not named it yet, I think it's something like 'From Hermaness to Muckle Flugga', I'm not sure. But yes, I'm pleased with it. I'm looking at it now, pinned up on a board," he declares. And the documentary? As with the work, he says, he'll just have to wait to see what comes out.

What Do Artists Do All Day: Norman Ackroyd is available on BBC iPlayer until Tuesday, 26 March.

Norman Ackroyd: Balmoral Forest Loch Muick, 2002 Norman Ackroyd, Balmoral Forest Loch Muick. Etching, 2002.

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